Why Amazon's Twitch, Facebook and tech giants want live sports

Amazon’s streaming platform Twitch will exclusively broadcast the upstart National Women’s Hockey League games in a new partnership starting this fall, joining other tech giants which are experimenting with live sports as more users ditch traditional television for digital options.

In a three-year agreement, Twitch will livestream all of the NWHL’s regular season and playoff games and collaborate with the league on interactive content for fans. Known as a primary destination for esports and video game streamers, Twitch also holds streaming rights for the NBA’s lower-tier G-League, airs Major League Soccer content and simulcasts NFL “Thursday Night Football” alongside Amazon Prime Video.

Twitch, and by extension Amazon, is one of several tech leaders ramping up investments in live sports in a bid to maintain their user bases and lure new consumers. Facebook, Google parent Alphabet and even Apple have explored adding live sports to their platforms in recent years. Tech companies are expected to be among the bidders when broadcast rights deals for the NFL, NBA and other pro sports leagues expire in the coming years.

“That’s the big takeaway – we’re in an era of experimentation with media distribution,” said Tom Richardson, a professor at Columbia University's sports management program and senior vice president at Mercury Intermedia. "I don’t think anyone on either side of the equation knows exactly what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, but I think the platforms and most of the leagues at this point in history are embracing the spirit of experimentation, and frankly, they’re learning from one another.”

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Amazon pays $65 million annually to stream 11 NFL “Thursday Night Football” games on Prime, the multi-level subscription service that serves as a key source of its revenue. The e-commerce giant also holds rights to air a package of games from the English Premier League. Facebook’s sports portfolio includes Champions League soccer and a handful of MLB games.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Sports Business Journal last month that Amazon, Google and Facebook are already in discussions about the league’s broadcast rights.

“I do firmly believe that these other platforms are going to be players in future negotiations. And, frankly, they are in current negotiations,” Goodell said.

With expiration dates for major sports league’s rights packages still years away, deals with smaller-scale leagues can help tech platforms gain valuable data about viewer interests – information that will come in handy as executives mull larger investments.

“We’re dealing with these incredibly powerful, wealthy monoliths in digital media – companies like Amazon, Facebook, etcetera – and their whole business is built on, essentially, the aggregation of different types of content, and then optimizing it for future investment [and] future monetization,” Richardson added.

At present, Twitch has a base of more than 15 million active users. The NWHL’s season begins on Oct. 5.

The NHWL previously streamed its games on YouTube. Twitch paid an undisclosed sum for exclusive broadcast rights, with revenue to be split between the league itself and NWHL players.

“With its accessible players and devoted fans, the NWHL is a perfect fit for Twitch in our global efforts to grow our traditional sports verticals,” said Jane Weedon, Twitch’s head of new verticals. "We are proud to partner with the league in its mission to build the professional women's hockey league the athletes and fans deserve.